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START Supporters Play Iran Card

Inter Press Service

Of all the arguments the Barack Obama administration is marshalling in support of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, the one that may have the greatest resonance with Republicans is over Iran.

White House nuclear nonproliferation chief Gary Samore made the link on Thursday, saying that failure to ratify START in the lame-duck Congressional session would "weaken the coalition" against Iran's nuclear programme, especially with regard to "maintaining coordination with Russia".

Russia has proved more helpful against Iran than many had expected. It voted in favour of tough new sanctions in the U.N. Security Council last summer and canceled the sale of the S-300 air defence system that Iran had sought to deter a U.S. or Israeli attack on its nuclear sites.

Experts agree that this cooperation could be jeopardised if the Senate fails to ratify START, the jewel in the crown of the U.S.-Russia reset.

Mark Katz, a specialist on Russia at George Mason University in Virginia, said Russia's cancellation of the air defence sale "was a concession to get the Senate to come to the right conclusion" about the arms reduction treaty. Russia will "revisit" that decision if the treaty does not go through, he said.

Richard Burt, a former arms control negotiator who now chairs Global Zero, a group seeking to rid the world of nuclear weapons, said Wednesday on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer that "there are only two governments in the world that wouldn't like to see this treaty ratified, the government in Tehran and the government in North Korea."

START would limit the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 warheads and 800 delivery vehicles each, a modest reduction from current levels. Prospects for the treaty's ratification dimmed earlier this week when Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, who has led Republican talks with the administration over START, said he doubted there would be time in the current session to bring the measure to a vote on the Senate floor.

The only Republican senator who has come out strongly in favour of swift passage is Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee. To gain the 67 votes needed for passage, the Obama administration needs eight more Republicans.

Democrats have accused Republicans of stalling to undermine Obama's re-election prospects. Samore, speaking to an audience at the Nixon Center, said the issue was much bigger than that and that the treaty "has become an important symbol of U.S. leadership".

Intense negotiations are continuing to try to sway Senate Republicans including Kyl, who was just re-elected to a leadership position in the Republican caucus.

Stephen Rademaker, a former assistant secretary of state dealing with nonproliferation under the George W. Bush administration, said Kyl "has not said he's opposed" to the treaty and that the Arizona Republican is negotiating for more money for the modernisation of the remaining U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. The administration has already promised nearly $85 billion over the next 10 years, a pledge that Samore said would be jeopardised if the treaty does not pass this year.

Rademaker, a Republican who has criticised the treaty in the past, said that the prospect of weakening the international consensus on Iran could lead him to support the accord.

"If I were a senator, I would try to find a way to vote in favour of the treaty," he said. He added later, however, that, "I would need a lot more conditions and other clarifications than are currently in the resolution of advice and consent in order to fix as many of the treaty's problems as possible."

Samore stressed that Iran is the administration priority when it comes to nonproliferation. Although Iran denies that it seeking weapons, Samore said he had no doubt that nuclear weapons was Iran's goal. He called it a country that is "eating away at it [the international nonproliferation regime] like a cancer".

The administration is hopeful that sanctions and Iran's growing international isolation will persuade it to slow its nuclear progress and negotiate meaningful limits to the programme. A new round of talks is expected as soon as Dec. 5, although Iran has yet to agree on where they will take place. The Tehran government has suggested Turkey, but Samore said that was not possible because Turkey voted against sanctions in the U.N. Security Council and thus "is not a neutral venue".

Samore confirmed that the U.S. and its partners are revising a year-old offer to Iran to exchange fuel for a research reactor that produces medical isotopes for low-enriched uranium Iran has stockpiled at its facility in Natanz. Samore said the U.S. is still insisting that Iran also agree to suspend its entire uranium enrichment programme, in accordance with U.N. resolutions, but indicated that the suspension could be temporary.

The duration of such a suspension and "the terms under which it could be lifted" would be a topic for negotiations, he said.

Iran insists that it has a right to enrich uranium as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Samore rejected the suggestion that Israel would have to clarify its nuclear weapons programme as part of a resolution of the Iranian nuclear file. Israel, he pointed out, is not a member of the NPT while Iran, he said, is "working within the regime to destroy it".

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